Teens across the country waiting anxiously to get their driver’s licenses were disappointed when most state motor vehicle departments suspended road testing for weeks—and sometimes for months—after the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March.
While many states have since returned to road testing, several others have opted to waive that requirement and allow teens to get their license anyway, at least for a time.
That’s only fair, state officials say. The teens typically have completed many hours of classroom instruction and supervised driving time. They need a license to get to jobs and help their families by running errands. In some states, new drivers ages 18 and over also can get waivers. The biggest impact, though, is on teenagers, since among new drivers, they take most of the road tests.
But road test waivers and suspensions have alarmed some highway safety organizations, because teens—inexperienced behind the wheel—have the highest crash rates of any age group. Teens’ driving abilities should be assessed by an impartial examiner take off on their own, safety advocates say.
“At a moment of national crisis like this, safety can’t take a backseat,” Maureen Vogel, spokesperson for the National Safety Council, an Itasca, Illinois-based organization focused on eliminating preventable deaths, said in an interview with Stateline.
“We understand the states’ intentions were good. A lot of this was driven by trying to find solutions to the pandemic. But we feel that for safety’s sake, when it comes to our most vulnerable and crash-prone drivers, removing any guardrails around their licensure is ill-advised.”
The issue of waiving or suspending road tests for young people during the pandemic has been fraught with controversy in some states.
In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order in April that allowed most people applying for a regular driver’s license to get one without having to take the road test during the state of emergency. That included teens who held a learner’s permit for year and a day and had no violations.
The order quickly drew fire from highway safety advocates.
Testing a teen’s skills at the motor vehicles department is important, said Sarah Casto, a driving instructor from Monticello, Georgia, who launched an online petition asking Kemp to reverse his decision. It attracted 2,550 signatures, many from parents.
“Having a road test is the last stop for a professional to see if teenagers can make decisions on their own without help,” Casto said. “I was scared for the safety of the drivers and the rest of the people on the road.”
Less than three weeks after his first order, Kemp issued a new one, requiring waiver recipients to take a road test. By then, about 20,000 teens had a waiver.
In North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill into law in June that temporarily allowed teen drivers to get a limited license during the pandemic without taking a road test. Applicants must be 16 or 17, have had a limited learner’s permit for at least one year and have completed at least 60 hours of supervised driving, including at night. They must not have had a moving violation or seat belt or cellphone violation within the past six months. (Qualified older drivers can receive a different waiver.)
Transportation safety advocates had urged Cooper to veto the legislation, saying eliminating the road test would put untested young drivers on the roads, imperiling their lives and those of others.
States such as North Carolina are “moving forward with something that feels nice and expedient but may not be safe,” said Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston, scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Winston co-wrote an op-ed in June asking Cooper to “pump the brakes” on eliminating road tests.
States instead could administer simulated driving tests and computer-based hazard awareness tests that would help screen out drivers likely to fail a road test, she said.
An October Health Affairs study co-authored by Winston found that a simulation program in Ohio could potentially save thousands of examiner hours that would have been spent on failed road exams each year.
But Steve Abbott, a North Carolina Department of Transportation spokesperson, said his state’s no-road-test program is working well.
“We are able to get licenses to qualified drivers, in turn enabling them to get to jobs, [to] school [and to] help their family do errands and assist in other roles,” he said, noting that the teens have considerable driving experience, including at night.
Between June and the end of November, 55,532 teens received the waiver, which must be approved by a parent or guardian, Abbott said.
“We had so many students and their parents upset because the teen was old enough and ready to get a license and they couldn’t get one because the road tests were shut down,” he said.
The program doesn’t have an end date, but teen drivers who have gotten the limited license still will have to take a road test to get a permanent one, he added.
This summer, Mississippi also started waiving road tests for teens with a learner’s permit and those over age 18 applying for a regular license for the first time, according to Chris Vignes, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety. To qualify, drivers under 18 must submit an affidavit completed by a parent or guardian that attests to the teen’s proficiency and certifies at least 50 hours of supervised driving time.
Mississippi doesn’t plan to reinstate road testing, Vignes said, noting that the waivers have been effective and have reduced the staff’s risk of exposure to COVID-19.
But the National Safety Council’s Vogel cautioned that it may not be wise for states to rely on parent affidavits. Most parents, she said, are honest about how much time teens are practicing driving—but not all of them.
“There is certainly the chance they can falsify them,” she said. “A road test provides another check and balance. You’ve reported you’ve gotten all that practice. So now let’s see it.“
Every state requires some type of graduated driver's licensing for those under 18. It starts with a permit phase, in which teens practice their skills, usually with supervision. Then it moves to a probationary or intermediate phase, in which they have restrictions, such as not driving late at night or not having multiple teen passengers. In the last phase, young drivers become fully licensed.
These types of programs, which vary widely from state to state, have helped improve safety for teen drivers.
“They have not done this before,” said Pam Shadel Fischer, a senior director at the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices. “Driving isn’t just teaching them how to break and accelerate and steer.”
Teen drivers often struggle with tasks such as turning left, gauging gaps in traffic, merging and driving the right speed for conditions, according to the National Safety Council’s Vogel.
The fatal crash rate for 16- and 17-year-olds is about three times that of drivers 20 and older, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group funded by auto insurance companies. In 2018, 2,121 people were killed in crashes involving a teen driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“Driving isn’t just teaching them how to break and accelerate and steer.”Pam Shadel Fischer, senior director Governors Highway Safety Association
Road tests help weed out teens who may be too nervous to take it or don’t think they’re ready, said Rebecca Weast, a research scientist at the insurance institute.
But supporters of deferring road tests during the pandemic say teens typically have gotten lots of experience practicing with a parent or guardian.
“New drivers are very conscientious. They know the rules. They’ve just been through the process,” said Pennsylvania Democratic state Rep. Melissa Shusterman, who sponsored a bill in June that would have temporarily suspended road tests for teens for the duration of a disaster emergency such as the pandemic.
“We would have been giving them the ability to get on the road, pick up the milk and eggs, help the senior citizen who needed something or go to their job at a grocery store or as a volunteer firefighter,” she said.
In Wisconsin, officials are trying a program that waives road testing for young drivers who want to get their probationary license if they meet certain requirements.
To get the waiver, teens ages 16 and 17 must have held a learner’s permit with no violations for at least six months and completed 30 hours of classroom instruction and additional hours of behind-the-wheel training with a licensed instructor. They also must have at least 30 hours of driving with their parent or guardian, who has to sign the waiver.
From mid-May through Dec. 7, the state has issued 31,438 such waivers, according to Kristina Boardman, the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles’ administrator.
Most Wisconsin teens pass the road test anyway, Boardman noted. Last year, 71% did so on their first attempt and 98% did after their first or second try.
Wisconsin’s plan is to run the waiver program for a year, see what the data shows and share it with the legislature, she said. So far, the program is “going very well” and no safety concerns have arisen, she added.
Parents who aren’t comfortable with the program can opt to have their teen take a road test. But so far, about 85% of parents have chosen the waiver.
Parents ultimately are the first line of defense, state officials and highway safety advocates say, so they should keep a close eye on their teens’ driving skills.
“It’s on the parent to say, ‘I don’t think you’re ready to do this right now,’” Weast said.
“For a lot of parents, it’s getting one thing off their plate. ‘Great. Take the car. I’m not your chauffeur anymore.’”